By Terry Eakin
Originally part of Cumber, Banagher became a distinct Presbyterian congregation about 1753. The first minister was John Law who was ordained in 1756 and who died in 1810. He was buried in the old priory graveyard in Dungiven. He was succeeded by James Alexander Johnston who later became minister of Holywood, County Down. During the ministry of the third incumbent, Reverend Thomas Ellison, ordained in 1822 in Cumber because Banagher Meeting House ‘was badly in need of repair and unsuitable for such an auspicious occasion’, the new Banagher Meeting House was erected. In the Archives of the Fishmongers Company, London, there is recorded a report of a deputation which surveyed the Estates of the Company in 1820: “The Presbyterian Meeting Houses of Ballykelly and Ballyhanedin are both in so wretched a state of repair as to be scarce fit for the Celebration of Divine Worship, or safe for the Congregation to assemble in. They are full of hope that their good landlords will assist them to repair, but considering the probable expense and the bad construction of both buildings it will certainly be more admirable to rebuild”.
The decision of the Court very generously favoured erecting two magnificent Church buildings, substantial and in the Classical Greek style. The sandstone dressings were quarried in Dungiven. The cost of Banagher was approved at £2,200 and was built over a period of three summers and completed in 1834. Ballykelly was completed two years later. According to the Ordnance Survey memoir of the parish of Banagher, dating from the 1830s, the Presbyterian meeting house was: ‘situated in Ballyhanedin townland, on the road between Derry and Dungiven, one mile westward of Feeny, It was erected in 1825 by the Fishmongers’ Company, at an expense of £2,000. It is a handsome substantial building. The entrance is in the gable, which is surmounted by a heavy projecting roof in the form of a pediment. It is lighted by two windows on each side with round arches. It has no gallery and can accommodate a congregation of 550 persons.’
The Ordnance Survey memoir of Banagher has the following to say about the Reverend Thomas Ellison, Presbyterian minister of the parish: ‘He rents his holding from the Fishmongers’ Company. They allow him, as well as the parish clergy of other denominations, a certain stipend per annum. Informants David Huiston and Thomas Hawthorn. The Reverend Thomas Ellison’s yearly stipend is £50, his Regium Donum from government £50, and Yearly contribution from the Fishmongers’ £10; total yearly income in the parish £110. Informant Thomas Thompson, elder.’ Mr Ellison died at the age of 48 in 1847 after falling heavily on his shoulder while tying a load of flax on a cart.
Mr Ellison’s successor was the Reverend Robert L. Rodgers of Carndonagh installed by the Presbytery of Glendermott in 1847. Mr Rodgers married a daughter of Matthew Robinson of Mulderg. In a visitation of Presbytery in 1852 we find that 212 families were connected with Banagher, that 270 were present at the Lord’s Supper, that the Stipend was £40 and that the Sabbath Day collections averaged 2/6d. Not surprisingly, in 1859 Banagher experienced the special grace of God which was sweeping the land for plans were made for the erection of a Gallery in the Church to accommodate the increased numbers wishing to attend Public Worship. The Fishmongers Company agreed to donate £163 to cover the cost of the Gallery which was made in 1860 on condition that the £400 already approved for the building of the Manse, should be proceeded with. In the Fishmongers records reference is made to the unsuitability of the old Manse that then existed, ‘Although it is good enough for a farm it is not good enough for one who as a minister ranks with gentlemen’. The Congregation responded to the spur and the present Manse was erected about 1865 and the architectural style is described as Tudor-Gothic.
The Reverend Robert L. Rodgers died in 1879 aged 63 and was buried in the Churchyard newly acquired from the Fishmongers Company in 1877. He was succeeded by the Reverend W. J. D. Williamson in 1880. Mr Williamson had been ordained in Staleybridge England in 1870 and removed from there to Irvinestown and again to Buncrana from where he came to Banagher. Mr Williamson received the call to Banagher in the face of stiff opposition when it is realised that two of the rejected candidates on the list later became Moderators of the General Assembly.
Mr Williamson’s ministry in Banagher lasted 24 years and coincided with a drop in numbers from 202 families to 150 families in 1904 due to the unsettled times in rural Ireland at the end of the nineteenth century and the attraction of emigration to North America. Nevertheless, Mr Williamson’s period is associated with ambitious building and renovation schemes. The interior of the Church apart from the Gallery was completely refurnished. The style of pews in the Gallery was once the style throughout the whole building. During the summer of renovations in the early eighties, the Church services were held in the Manse barn. Also during Mr Williamson’s stay, the Fishmongers Company handed over the property of the Church buildings as a gift to the Congregation and also the Manse in 1892. The Congregation at their own expense built the Century Hall in 1900 and Banagher Congregation was equipped with Church buildings that were the envy of many a congregation at that time.
The additional strain of the building works carried out in the service of Mr Williamson must have severely undermined the health of the minister for he had just gone to Portrush for a short holiday in 1904 when he died suddenly at the age of 59. His wife, Annette Graham of Claremont, Londonderry and daughter Eleanor Elizabeth survived him. His daughter married George Craig J.P. of Drumcovitt in 1907 and from that union Mr Williamson’s memory survived to help fashion the Christian traditions that are still very evident with us through our Session Clerk, Mr S. G. M. Craig J.P.
The Reverend James Thompson Heney was ordained in 1906 and succeeded Mr Williamson. His was a long ministry at Banagher though he was offered a call to 1st Coleraine within a year of coming to Banagher but declined to the delight of his people and continued in active service until he retired in 1946. Bachelor ministers of Banagher have found their hearts strangely warmed towards the locality for three of them married local girls. Mr Heney married Mabel G. Warnock of Straidarran. During Mr Heney’s ministry the property of the Church and Hall were added to by the generosity of a highly respected member, Dr David Thompson of Fincairn. Dr Thompson presented the Church with an excellent two manual pipe organ in 1930 and a hydro electric scheme to provide electric power for its use. In 1933 he further helped the congregation by building an annex to the Century Hall to provide a kitchen and cloakrooms. Mr Heney is remembered with great respect for his faithful service. He retired to Portstewart and died 10 years later in 1956.
The Reverend Norman James Houston was ordained in 1946 as successor to Mr Heney. He showed by his courage and determination when suddenly afflicted with paralysis that he had extraordinary powers of strength and faith by continuing to serve the congregation in all its needs when confined to a wheelchair. Mr Houston’s misfortune came suddenly when he was a young man and he persevered against great odds to be active in the life of the Congregation of Banagher and in the wider Church for an extra 16 years till his health was greatly undermined forcing him to retire in 1976 having been minister of this congregation for 30 years.
Banagher experienced its longest vacancy with the retirement in August 1976 for it wasn’t till December 1977 that a call was issued to the Reverend Norman Hunter to succeed Mr Houston as minister. Mr Hunter and his wife and family had returned from mission service in Malawi and Zambia under the Overseas Board of our Church. The change was very great for Mr Hunter after 11 years in Africa working mainly in Education in Secondary Schools as Chaplain and Teacher.
The P. W. A. of the Congregation provided the spur to modernize the Kitchen and Cloakroom and the Committee have responded by renovating and redecorating the Hall. The Manse was greatly improved so as to modernize it and provide added comfort. The Congregation have provided additional opportunities for the young people and children of our district to experience the comradeship of organised activities with a Christian influence in the 1st Banagher Company of the Boys’ Brigade and the 308th Company of the Girls’ Brigade Northern Ireland.